Letter on Artificial and Human Intelligence

Prometheus, illustration adapted by Massimo de Vico Fallani

Solomeo, 3 August 2023

Like so many inventions that have accompanied the history of mankind and facilitated its progress, I like to think of artificial intelligence as a new handmaiden that accompanies human beings to inspire and renew their genius and creativity. I imagine this new reality as similar to a breath that can revive the vital fire of our human mind. “Parva favilla magnam flammam secundat” - [“From a little spark may burst a flame”]. This is what Dante Alighieri thought, a humble invitation to posterity to follow the universal call of perennial human values.

Recently, a major ethical initiative has been launched to solicit proposals for a shared artificial intelligence design. I look at such an intention with fascination, trepidation and hope, because it shows how everyone feels the need for a nomos similar to that which the ancient Greeks gave themselves as a rule for their social and political life.

Human values and goods derive strength and quality from their duration, and in this regard I think of Hegel, who said that quantity determines quality. I am convinced that genius is one of those values, and I would like authentic genius to become a goal that everyone can constantly strive for with an open mind. I would like to believe that the whole world, and every single person, every single reality, lives by truth. Was that of our Renaissance scientists and artists not perhaps authentic genius? When Leonardo da Vinci, after admiring a work of art, perhaps a painting, or a sculpture, exclaimed: “I would like to imagine the construction of a flying object!”. Was this not perhaps an embodiment of genius? Genius is precisely that human factor that creates inventions unexpectedly, because it does so by skipping the logical processes of the mind, becoming madness for a moment.

This extraordinary creativity, the one belonging to Galilei and Newton, the same one that led Darwin and Einstein to lay the foundations of the modern world, is today the fertile ground where artificial intelligence can demonstrate its efficacy, and indeed we expect some kind of return from contemporary geniuses, a formidable return to pure human creativity, a process in which I see a revival and not a new way. I am convinced that each new value will sprout from the previous ones, increasing the sacredness of the ancient heritage and the places where the wisdom of our ancestors is preserved: I am thinking of books, and of those silent temples that are libraries. What the Library of Alexandria did for many centuries, spreading Hellenistic culture throughout the world, is what even the smallest library does today, as it mirrors the world.

I am convinced that the value of the written word, the ancient matter of its physical reality, made of paper and the scent of ink, of dust and ancient wood, will become useful suggestions for artificial intelligence, because in these aspects, it seems to me, resides the value of the source, the possibility, I think unique, to converse with ancient peoples, as Machiavelli did, conceiving his library as the place:

“Where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.”

And this is the eternal greatness of books, from which emerges the authentic genius of the great thinkers to whom the destiny of all peoples of all times is entrusted. Truth is the reason for books, and from it comes credibility, which is a necessary factor in human life. Without truth and credibility, what men would we be? With Kant, I wonder if the stars above us and the moral law within us would still be our guide.

Prometheus shapes the first man which Athena endows with a soul by placing a butterfly on its head [in Ancient Greek Psyche], Roman Low relief, 2nd century AD, Museo Nacional del Prado © Photo MNP / Scala, Florence

I expect the contemporary Leonardos of technology to look to humanistic values as the source of their creations, for only in this way the results will be imbued with them and artificial intelligence will achieve the highest levels of good for mankind.

In one of his most thought-provoking works, Aeschylus recounts the legend of Prometheus: this hero represents the human cognitive spirit, which by giving the world fire intends to liberate men from the anguish of darkness. Prometheus says:

“I explained to them the risings and settings of stars; [...] and yes, I invented for them numbers, too, the most important science; and the stringing up of letters, the art of Memory...”

Yet we read again in Aeschylus that with the use of fire came to men the evils of a life far removed from the quiet, simple, primitive existence. Jupiter therefore condemned Prometheus to eternal suffering, and he himself acknowledged his mistake with these words:

“Technique is too much weaker than necessity.”

I recognize in the Greeks the highest genius generating eternal values.

The first source of truth for human beings, as for all sentient animals, is our perception of the world, experienced through our senses. As one historian has narrated, unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, human beings are endowed with a formidable capacity for imagination. We are the only ones who modify reality, using ideas, desires, dreams as a starting point: our mind can run far beyond what the five senses enable us to observe and understand.

The concepts of authentic and true have steadily evolved as our societies have progressed: while for prehistoric man it was true what the wise elder of his tribe would say, for very many human beings the truth lived in the Sacred Scriptures. This was the case for literature, the figurative arts, printed books and, at the end of the 19th century, for photography. We can imagine that this is why mankind will look for new foundations on which to securely base its mind and social relations.

At the same time, direct human experience may be of great importance and represent building the foundations of truth that we as living beings and societies need.

Throughout their history, human beings have always imagined that they could create machines and automatons to free themselves from the heaviest and most repetitive tasks. Aristotle made reference to this aspiration in his work Politics, when he described instruments capable of performing their own work at the word of command or by ‘intelligent anticipation’; instruments capable of erasing slavery from the future of mankind. Artificial intelligence will perhaps become the form through which contemporary man will still visit the eternal myth of the imitation of nature. If we wanted to see a replica of nature and its mysteries within this, however, we should also remember that human intelligence has been formed over millions of years, and it is difficult to imagine that artifice could achieve a copy of it in less time today. This is why the fear of artificial intelligence, beyond the use that man might make of it, is more akin to the fear of the unknown that assailed men when faced with lightning before Prometheus brought them fire as a gift.

It seems, therefore, if not to be feared, that artificial intelligence is to be prized for all the benefits it can bring to the world, to the extent that it can liberate man from the material burdens of present-day life, returning to him the dimension, time and space of an existence spent in harmony with nature, such as mankind experienced from the earliest times until at least the last century, in a contemporary setting.
For this reason, it is not easy for me to imagine an automaton or an artificial system that could feel authentic emotions or deep, true feelings. Could a robot ever look up to the sky, or feel emotion, and see real tears gushing from its eyes?

Prometheus shapes the first man which Athena endows with a soul by placing a butterfly on its head [in Ancient Greek Psyche], illustration created with Generative AI tools

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